BANGKOK — One of the annual controversies surrounding Thai university education is the initiation rites for freshmen students which often turn autocratic, abusive and even sadistic.
Chulalongkorn University student leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is trying to turn his university into an example of good practice and the council he leads recently asked students heed six recommendations in a bid to eradicate the controversies of such practice.
The six recommendations are the respect for human rights without ethnic, gender, age or religious discrimination; the non-enforcement of initiation rites on students; the financial transparency in initiation-rite-related spending; the banning of harassment threats against freshmen; the maintenance of good hygiene and the openness of activities to outsiders.
On Friday, Netiwit – a sophomore at the faculty of political science faculty and the president of the university’s student council – took a reporter on a tour of the premises. Things seemed orderly and there were no visible sightings of the abuse so characteristic of the infamous rite known in Thai as Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit, or SOTUS.
Netiwit said the dark days are numbered, if not already behind. But as we were entering a large room housing 200 students undergoing rites, a female senior student in charge was seen carrying a transparent plastic bucket filled with straws and a leftover red-colored drink. This was a clear sign that communal drinking had been taking place and thus contrary to student council recommendations. Netiwit tried to downplay the matter, despite the recommendations clearly specifying that “for good hygiene, students should not engage in the communal consumption of food or drinks.”
Sarawit Pratchprueng, a sophomore who is among the seniors organizing the rite said no one is being explicitly coerced to participate in such initiation rite at the faculty any longer. Out of 282 freshmen at the faculty this academic year, he said only 231 willingly joined the program. He also pointed to the positive side of the SOTUS rite.
“Seniors and freshmen have the chance to get to know one another and build relationships. The connection will come handy in the future for works. If we use force like in SOTUS, it won’t be of benefit to the young,” explained Sarawit, adding that there’s no coercion involved whatsoever.
Asked if such connections bred nepotism and paternalism in the workplace wherein some large corporations favor people who graduated from the same university over others equally if not more qualified, Sarawit said that’s partly true.
“That’s partly right, there’s paternalism. But there are positive sides as well,” he said.
Phiotsinee Jeeraphum, a junior International Relations major at the same faculty – who was one of the main organizers of the initiation rite said that “there’re two sides to everything, good and bad,” adding that the rite ensures freshmen don’t feel isolated.
Flashback to the Recent Past
In some past cases, both in this and other universities, students who decide not to partake have been coerced to do so through back channels, and seniors have threatened to punish those who do not cajole others into joining.
Things used to be much rougher, at least at the university’s Faculty of Engineering, a former student who became an anti-junta activist insisted. Kittithat Sumalop, or Champ 1984, recalled how rites ceremonies at Chulalongkorn University were abusive back in 2000 when he was a freshman.
Kittithat, 34, said back then things were pretty coercive and abusive.
“This was brainwashing,” said Kittithat, adding that his seniors may have wanted him and fellow batch mates to love the seniors and the institution by instilling uncontested obedience. “It’s about being made to unquestioningly accept the power of seniors,” said Kittithat, adding that he sees a parallel with military dictatorship and what the junta demands from citizens at present.
Kittithat said he was made to run under the blazing sun and crawl on a concrete floor among other things before being forced to scream at pictures taken of him during the activities.
However, the end result was the total opposite to unison, as Kittithat said he emerged from the ordeal carrying “a seed of doubt” which eventually turned him from a conservative right-winger and a bookish and obedient child into a daring left-wing activist challenging the military regime 15 years later.
Nevertheless, the activist insisted that things had improved remarkably over the past decade and a half.
“Students nowadays increasingly dare to questions things,” said Kittithat, adding that issues such as compulsory student uniforms are also being questioned by students.
Coercion and Abuse Continue Elsewhere
On Sunday, local media reported an incident at Mahasarakham Rajabhat University in the northeastern region, where an initiation rite for incoming musicology students at the faculty of humanities allegedly involved the throwing feces at freshmen’s faces. Students involved in the organization of the event quickly denied the allegations, saying that shredded vegetables and pumpkin mixed with fermented fish paste had been used instead. The university administrator responded by launching an internal probe on Monday.
Moreover, Facebook page Anti-Sotus posted video footage Sunday which shows male engineering students at the university being forced to take turns to lick the nipples of fellow male students. Deputy Rector Pitawat Panthisri said on Monday that the university would probe both cases and have results within seven days.
The Facebook page also posted a photo which appears to show topless students lying side by side on a wet floor with their hands underneath each other’s trousers.
“Generating such idiocy. Will the university administrators not take any responsibilities? These seniors psychos are doing this in the name of the university and this is a disgrace to the Asean region,” wrote Hara Shintaro, a former lecturer of Malay language at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province, on his Facebook profile.
Once such practices are made public, universities can no longer defend them. It’s better to be proactive, said Prathai Piriyasuwang, associate professor of communication arts at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University. Prathai said his college would not tolerate any such cruel and abusive practice and that lecturers, himself included, were assigned to monitor the rite.
“I have to monitor how they are being initiated,” Prathai said, adding that anything that occurs unsupervised or after office hours would not be tolerated.
However, each new academic year has seen new cases of abuse. Piyarat Chonthep, co-founder of Anti-Sotus, which has more than 127,000 likes and focuses on such abuse said universities in the provinces tend to be more vulnerable to the conservative and autocratic ritual. What’s more, he said it’s a reflection of the larger society itself.
“Collegiate life is a reflection of the larger society. We are seeing increasingly militaristic initiation rites, top-down approaches and the use of connections to facilitates workplace recruitment.”
Piyarat – who traced the history of abusive and autocratic rites from Thai students who studied at universities abroad and returned to adopt them in Thailand – said things have improved considerably over the years and that younger generations have a more independent mind.
“Some have said no to such practices. I have hope for places like Chulalongkorn [university],” Piyarat said. “Upcountry, there may be less awareness about rights and students may be in situations where they feel compelled to subject themselves [to seniors].”
While the objective is to instill unity and spirit, the methods employed are often wrong because coercion doesn’t bring about unity, Piyarat said.
Even Piyarat and Netiwit, two of the main players in the debate over the appropriateness of initiation rites, think the practice will persists but hopefully without coercion and abuse.
“I don’t think it’s possible to do-away with it,” said Netiwit, who added that he is not against a human-rights-sensitive rite. “There are more positives than negatives. It helps students from the provinces [who come to study to Bangkok] to enjoy human contact. Initiation rites are not just about autocracy or a patronage system.”